Late on the night of Wednesday, May 29, 1996, so the story goes, Shimon Peres went contentedly to bed believing, on the strength of TV exit polls, that he had been elected prime minister. At around 2 a.m. Thursday, as the genuine results flowed in, the slim advantage those polls had given Peres began to erode. If he had indeed dozed off, when he woke up the next morning Peres would have found that, not for the first time or the last, he had narrowly lost an election - in this case by a margin of less than one percent. Binyamin Netanyahu was the new leader of Israel. What happened to Ehud Olmert between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning was not remotely comparable to that Peres nightmare of a decade ago. Olmert was on safe ground celebrating Kadima's victory on the strength of the exit polls, and Netanyahu, the loser this time, for that matter, was right to rapidly acknowledge blistering defeat. But the overnight shift from Tuesday's exit poll findings to Wednesday's all-but final results was dramatic nonetheless, and only partially offset by the subsequent adjustment as counting was completed on Thursday evening. And it could have a major impact on the stability and longevity of the coalition government Olmert has now set about constructing. When the presumptive prime minister - who, like Peres, had inherited the prime ministership in tragic and unexpected circumstances and was now running to cement his place in the role - hailed his success at around 1 a.m. on March 29, he did so on the basis of three strikingly similar TV exit polls. All of them provided the assurance that he could, should he so choose, assemble a Knesset coalition with a comfortable majority comprised solely of parties fundamentally sympathetic to his "convergence" plan for pulling back to the yet-to-be finalized line of the security barrier in the West Bank. Channel 1's exit poll, deemed to be the most reliable forecast, predicted 29 seats for his Kadima party, 22 for Amir Peretz's Labor, five for Yossi Beilin's Meretz and eight for the night's surprise performers, Rafi Eitan's Gil Pensioners' Party - a total of 64 seats. Channel 10, with its much-hyped big-screen broadcast in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, put those four parties at 63 seats (Kadima 31, Labor 20, Meretz 5 and the Pensioners 7). And Channel 2 had the same grouping at 65 seats (Kadima 32, Labor 22, Meretz 5 and the Pensioners 6). No, Kadima, which had been polling in the mid-40s just a few weeks earlier, had not fared nearly as well as Olmert would have hoped, or as it would likely have fared had Ariel Sharon led it into the elections. But the center-left bloc was there - solidly there, at 63-65 seats - whether all those parties wound up inside or outside the coalition; a dependable majority in the 120-seat Knesset for any "Disengagement II" initiative, potentially bolstered moreover by the votes of the Arab parties. By the time Olmert and the rest of the nation revisited the voting figures on Wednesday morning, however, the picture had changed - subtly but tellingly. Those all-but-final results no longer gave Olmert that comfortable breathing space: Kadima (28), Labor (20), Meretz (4) and the Pensioners (7) combined to only 59 seats. The Thursday adjustment restored his center-left majority, just, lifting Kadima by one seat and Meretz by one, to boost the center-left to 61. It may well be that, in order to broaden the base of his government and ensure that Kadima was not its most right-wing component, Olmert was planning to leave Meretz out in the cold along with the Arab parties anyway, and invite in one or more of Shas, United Torah Judaism or Israel Beiteinu. But with only that wafer-thin advantage, he no longer has much choice in the matter. He has to bring in one or more partners who do not fully endorse his "convergence" plan. Indeed, Shas opposes it; UTJ voted against disengagement under Sharon, and Avigdor Lieberman, the Israel Beiteinu strong man, though prepared to relinquish even parts of sovereign Israel that are adjacent to the West Bank and overwhelmingly Arab-populated, utterly rejects unilateralism. Along with the electorate's shift in balance from center-right to center-left in the new Knesset in terms of attitudes to the West Bank, there was also a distinctive swing in the same direction where economic and social policies are concerned. Voters harked back to Israel's socialist origins, opting to maintain Labor at much the same Knesset representation as last time and thus halting what had been the party's gradual decline into obscurity, bolstering Shas, and sending that pensioners' septet to parliament in a protest vote rooted in the spreading sense of grievance at the financial inequality between our "haves" and "have-nots." Responsibly or otherwise, Olmert can certainly meet the economic demands of Labor, Shas, UTJ and Gil via an astute distribution of ministerial portfolios, Knesset committee chairmanships and hard cash - hundreds of millions that can be doled out to the relevant constituencies and special interest groups. And he can probably maintain a stable coalition along these lines for the foreseeable future. Where things might get sticky is if and when he gets to "convergence." Although his victory speech asserted that "the time has come to act," he has not set a firm timetable for dramatic unilateral measures, and that speech professed a readiness to give the Palestinians the chance to progress through negotiation if they changed "their ethos... to accept compromise." But come the day that he needs the assurance of Knesset backing for a further unilateral pullback, Olmert, like prime minister Ehud Barak in the run-up to the Camp David talks of 2000, may find that some of his erstwhile coalition partners have disappeared and that his majority is precarious indeed - a function of the difference between the Tuesday night exit-polls and the genuine results. THE SIGNIFICANCE of that shift resonates beyond the Knesset coalition arithmetic. Few would seriously dispute that the election vote amounted to a rejection of the world view shared by the Likud and the National Union-National Religious Party alliance, the determination to retain - at least for the foreseeable future in the case of the Likud, and beyond that in the case of the NU-NRP - all areas of Judea and Samaria where Israel currently has control. Those two parties between them constitute barely a sixth of the new Knesset. If Olmert was the less than emphatic election winner, Netanyahu and his outlook were conclusive losers. Yet parties ideologically sympathetic to the settlement enterprise - the Likud, the NU-NRP, Shas, UTJ and Israel Beiteinu - nonetheless together constitute 50 seats. Opponents of "convergence" might also argue that the pensioners do not truly belong in the center-left ideological camp on matters relating to the Palestinians, since theirs was a single-issue socioeconomic campaign, and thus that the rightist alliance on the question of what should become of the West Bank is not actually much weaker than the center-left partnership. This matters, matters deeply, because of the wrenching struggle now ahead of us if, as is after all Olmert's repeatedly stated intention, he proceeds toward a second pullout. Unlike Sharon, who claimed implausibly to have no plans for future unilateralism and was essentially asking the public to vote for him because he would know better than his rivals how to handle the Palestinian conflict, Olmert told the electorate exactly what he had in mind, and probably lost a sizable number of seats for his candor. In contrast with the aftermath of Sharon's 2003 election victory, when his critics, many of whom had voted for him, fumed that he had not prepared them for his radical shift from fathering settlements to dismantling them, nobody can accuse Olmert of concealing his intentions. But while Olmert asserts that Tuesday's vote was thus a referendum on unilateralism that has produced a consensus in favor, some of his opponents are already arguing that this is not the case, dismissing the votes of Arab MKs on a matter of such Jewish centrality and pointing to the consequent lack of an emphatic Knesset majority. And in a far-right camp where many have come to believe that the Gaza settlers, respecting Jewish unity, were wrong to eschew more violent opposition to Disengagement I, the potential for bitter resistance to Disengagement II may be all the greater. By the standards of recent years, international interest in our elections was marginal; twice as many foreign TV crews flew in to cover Sharon's collapse in January. And their focus, as ever, was on the "peace process," skewed shorthand for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite his pro forma appeal to Mahmoud Abbas to have the new Hamas government lay down its arms, recognize Israel and negotiate, Olmert presumably does not delude himself that this is about to happen. Israel last summer began what he surely sees as a continuing process of separation from, not interaction with, the Palestinians. Where interaction must necessarily continue is within Israel, within an electorate that, in its divided complexity, rejected the notion of continued settlement throughout the West Bank, on the one hand, but provided a less than overwhelming endorsement for the Olmert convergence vision on the other. Because he spelled out Kadima's road map, his mandate for action is nonetheless clearer than was Sharon's for the Gaza pullout. But the number of Israelis who would be directly affected by the second disengagement Olmert envisages is perhaps seven or eight times as many as the 8,000 families removed from Gaza and northern Samaria. The stakes, high then, are higher still now. (All of which, incidentally, renders even more incomprehensible that record-low turnout - with the very borders of Israel at issue, borders that most families must send their children to defend.) Implementing "convergence" could never have been anything other than immensely traumatic even had a vast consensus been galvanized behind it: if Kadima had won a single-party majority in the Knesset, or at least the 40-plus seats it was reasonably anticipating under Sharon. It will be all the more testing for the fractured nation that, last Tuesday, gave no single party more than a quarter of the Knesset.